Washington Insider -- Wednesday

Backyard Chickens and Health Risks

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Trump Wants Plans to Withdraw From South Korea Trade Deal

President Donald Trump has instructed advisers to prepare a withdrawal from the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free-trade agreement, a move that would raise economic tensions with the U.S. ally at a time both countries confront a crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Under the terms of the KORUS pact, either side can pull out by giving 180 days' notice.

Negotiators from the U.S. and South Korea held several meetings over the summer with American officials leaving unhappy with what they felt was Seoul's unwillingness to make significant changes to the KORUS. The president could decide to stay in the agreement in order to renegotiate its terms, but internal preparations for terminating the deal are far along and the formal withdrawal process could begin as soon as this week. Some believe the latest threat is a negotiating tactic to bring Seoul back to the bargaining table.

Environment, Energy Issues on Backburner as Congress Returns

Environment and energy issues are expected to take a back seat to major must-pass measures, which Congress must move on now that it has returned from the August recess.

Hurricane Harvey disaster aid for Texas is at the top of Congress' agenda, as is a vote to increase the debt ceiling before the government reaches its borrowing limit sometime in October. Congressional leaders will likely need at least a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to avert a government shutdown after government funding lapses September 30. Progress on a combined Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior Department spending bill and pending EPA nominations — including Susan Bodine to head EPA's enforcement office — may have to wait.

Given that dynamic, it is also unclear when the Senate will take up other pending nominations, including several Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) seats, said David Popp, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. In the House, Republicans will work this week to move the Fiscal 2018 EPA-Interior spending bill (HR 3354), likely as part of larger "minibus" package combining more than a half-dozen other spending measures. The House Rules Committee has a scheduled hearing today to consider such a minibus bill that will pull together eight appropriations bills.

For its part, the EPA-Interior bill includes Republican-led efforts to help the Trump administration roll back the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule that determined the Clean Water Act's (CWA) jurisdiction over U.S. waterways. Other riders seek to delay ozone air pollution standards and block the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the greater sage grouse. Similar controversial riders have been mostly abandoned in the past to ensure support of Democrats, who still have significant leverage in the Senate on what is included in spending bills.

Washington Insider: Backyard Chickens and Health Risks

The New York Times is warning this week that that while chicks and ducklings seem unlikely health culprits, they have been found to be responsible for infecting more than 900 people with salmonella this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As a result, the agency is investigating multistate outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to people who keep poultry in their backyards. As the local-food movement grows across the nation, more people are raising chickens, ducks and other birds. But along with the benefits of connecting with nature and easy access to fresh eggs comes the risk of disease.

And, “sometimes these infections can be fatal,” the Times says.

The numbers are impressive--so far this year, 961 people in 48 states have contracted the disease from backyard birds. More than 200 people have been hospitalized and one person in North Carolina has died,” the Times says. Outbreaks have been reported for several years now, but case numbers shot up sharply last year and are expected to continue to rise.

Salmonella is a bacterial disease people often associated with eating raw cookie dough and other products with undercooked eggs or meat. But it can also be contracted when people put their hands, or equipment, that has been in contact with live poultry, in or around their mouth. Risk of that type of contact increases as backyard birds become more popular.

“That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get backyard birds,” CDC’s Dr. Nichols said. But it is important to take appropriate precautions to avoid the spread of salmonella—precautions that would seem to take some of the fun out of having poultry as pets. “Always wash your hands after handling poultry, she advised. Keep a separate pair of boots and clothes to use in the coop, so you don’t carry germs back into the home. Don’t let poultry live inside the house, never eat or drink in the area they live and avoid kissing or snuggling them.”

Earlier surveys have shown plans for sharp increases in poultry in urban settings, plans that experts say are coming true. “Instead of just selling baby poultry in the spring, they’re being sold year-round now,” Nichols said.

Traci Torres, a founder of My Pet Chicken, a Connecticut-based backyard chicken vendor, said the birds were becoming so popular that the company often sells out months in advance. “We don’t see any signs of it slowing down,” she said.

Andy Schneider, a backyard poultry expert known as the Chicken Whisperer, said people join the backyard bird movement for many reasons. But the largest motivator is a supply of fresh eggs, he said.

“The No. 1 issue of why it’s growing, without a doubt, is the local-food movement,” Schneider said. “People want to know where their food comes from.” In a 2014 survey, 95 percent of respondents said the main reasons they kept chickens were for eggs, meat or both.

There’s a common belief that those eggs will be safer than commercial eggs, Schneider said. But that’s not the case. A recent study found that eggs from small flocks are more likely to be contaminated with salmonella than eggs sold in grocery stores because those typically come from larger flocks that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

In addition, Schneider said, “people want poultry pets. They give the birds cute and clever names, like Oprah Henfrey and Sir Lays-a-lot. “They hug them, kiss them, put clothes on them, bring them inside the house,” he added — all behaviors that increase the risk of infection.

“Many people who bring poultry into their home as pets don’t necessarily know they can carry germs that make people sick,” Nichols said, “so they may not take the appropriate precautions.”

Bob Smith and his wife, who live in Hershey, Pa., have owned chickens for four years and never had an issue. “They’re amazing pets,” Smith said. “They’re probably more responsive to me than my cats are.” But having worked as a microbiologist in a hospital for many years, Smith knew the risks they carried, too. He was quick to enforce hand-washing practices among anyone who visited the chicks and regularly cleans the coop to reduce the risk of spreading feces.

“I know what salmonella is,” he said. “I’ve seen it. And if washing my hands keeps me from having that, then I’m definitely going to wash my hands.”

Well, the CDC numbers seem to be enough to at least add some precautions to home-raised chickens. And, while there is plenty of information around about where salmonella comes from, the suggestion is that thousands, even millions of buyers have little idea about how much risk backyard poultry can bring. Having almost a thousand citizens sickened—a number expected to grow would seem to suggest the need for a much more vigorous program to somehow label this product and its use in a serious effort to bring that damage down sharply, Washington Insider believes.

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